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How Rewards Make Habits Stick: Choosing One That Motivate You
Habit Building

How Rewards Make Habits Stick: The Habit Loop Explained #3

July 9, 2020


At System2, science is behind everything we do. It’s how we help people create change in their lives, build new habits, and do more than they ever thought possible.

This is the third and final article in our series on the Habit Loop. Earlier, we talked about Cues and how they trigger habits, as well as Routines and how they work. Today, we’ll explain how Routines take hold in your brain and how to intentionally make that happen using Rewards.

But first, a quick recap…

What Is the Habit Loop and How Does It Work?

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, the Habit Loop is made up of three distinct elements:

  1. Cue – What triggers the habit (you feel a film on your teeth)
  2. Routine – What you do when triggered (you brush your teeth)
  3. Reward – What makes your brain remember (your teeth feel tingly, minty, and clean)

Each of your habits can be traced back to this three-part pattern.

What’s more, every time you complete the Habit Loop, you’ll release a chemical called dopamine into your system. This reinforces the behavior, makes your brain happy, and encourages you to perform the habit again in the future.

Eventually, with enough repetition and by applying good Rewards, the behavior becomes automatic— you no longer have to force yourself to do it. But how can you release dopamine on command? Or, in other words, how can you ensure that you’re successfully reinforcing your new habits with good Rewards? Let’s find out…

What do Rewards Look Like?

Here’s an easy example: smoking is a habit that provides an immediate and easily identifiable Reward. By smoking a cigarette, you ingest nicotine. The nicotine then reacts with receptors in your brain and quickly produces dopamine. Your brain recognizes this and decides that from now on, smoking is an amazing, dependable source of dopamine.

And… on some level that’s true. In fact most addictive substances work that way— they provide a quick and reliable source of dopamine. If you trace back any of your daily habits, you’ll find that they all provide (or used to provide) dopamine, including the habits that feel “boring”.

For example, brushing your teeth doesn’t seem like a habit that would have any significant impact on your dopamine levels. Which was actually a major problem in the early 1900s when toothpaste first hit the market. People just couldn’t make it a habit to regularly brush their teeth (gross!).

At least, that was until Pepsodent released a toothpaste that contained citric acid. This ingredient is a mild irritant, and is the reason you feel that tingly sensation after you brush your teeth. By simply including this one extra ingredient, Pepsodent was able to signal to its customers that their teeth were now clean, releasing dopamine into the brain.

The rest, as they say, is history. Brushing your teeth is now a habit that pretty much all of us have burned into our brains. And the reason is simple… early toothpaste companies figured out how to choose the right Reward and built it into the habit.

Choosing the Right Rewards

You now know how Rewards work— complete a task, receive dopamine.

Your next task is to identify Rewards that motivate you and then apply those as you build new habits. All you need to do is figure out a way to reliably deliver dopamine to your brain.

Dopamine-positive activities could include:

  • Food
  • Drugs
  • Accomplishing something challenging
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Socializing (including digitally)
  • Sex
  • Money (one of System2 Rewards)

From that list, we obviously don’t recommend reinforcing your Habit Loop with illicit drugs or alcohol. However, even something as mild as a cup of coffee can be enough of a Reward to help create new habits. Try grabbing a cup of coffee immediately after you read a chapter of a book, study for 5 minutes, or whatever habit you’re trying to build. Eventually, your brain will associate the caffeine (and subsequent dopamine) with studying or reading. You’ll start looking forward to the habit.

With that said, coffee doesn’t necessarily make a great Reward when it comes to habit building.

One of the keys to choosing the right Reward is choosing something that can happen immediately and reliably. Coffee can take a while to brew, may be too hot to consume, and can actually take up 20 minutes before your body begins producing dopamine.

Instead, look for something more immediate. Sugar and chocolate make especially good choices, especially as you initially start building a new habit.

For example, let’s say you’re working on building an exercise habit. You’ve already read our previous article on Routines and you know you need to break the habit into smaller steps (micro habits). To start, you’re setting an alarm for 8PM each night (the Cue) and packing your workout bag each night (the Routine) as soon as it goes off.

Perfect. Your next step is to assign a reward.

Try keeping a small bag of M&Ms near your gym bag. When you pack your bag and leave it by the door, eat one immediately. That’s it. Just one.

After a few weeks, you could try transitioning to a healthier Reward like chocolate-covered almonds. Eventually, after about 3 months, try reducing the Reward to regular, uncoated almonds or some other dopamine-positive food. And, once you feel like packing your gym bag each night is an absolute no-brainer, try removing the Reward completely (usually after 9 months of successful repetition).

By that point, your brain no longer needs outside stimulation to complete the Habit Loop. You’ve successfully made the Routine an automatic action.

Congratulations, you’ve successfully built a habit.



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